jump to navigation

Siege of Mafeking: Boers take the bait November 11, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment
Click for zoom.

Click for zoom.

The story of the siege starts here. For background on the causes and major events of the war, go here. To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

Why on earth did the Boers devote so much manpower—around 7,000 men, or about a fifth of their total strength—to an out-of-the-way village located at the borders of the Cape Colony, Bechuanaland, and the South African Republic (the Transvaal)?

The historical record consists almost exclusively of British documents, so we don’t have a good answer for the question. We only know that the Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg commandos massed at the Transvaal border near Mafeking shortly before war was declared October 11, 1899.

The Boer command reduced numbers at Mafeking after the siege’s first month, but nevertheless, the commandos tied up at this little town could have been occupied much more usefully at the battlefields of Natal or in the action south of Kimberley.

In the map above, the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State are shown in white. The British colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal are shown in red, together with the British protectorates. Mafeking sat in a largely unpopulated region, the vast Kalahari extending north and west. The town’s strategic significance for the British was its location on the rail line between Rhodesia and the Cape Colony. Troops could be moved there from south or north for incursions into the western Transvaal. But then again, cutting the rail line on either side would be a trivial matter.

At the start of the war, the Boers looked for military leadership from veterans of the lesser-known First Boer War of 1880-1881, a disaster for the British. Many of them also had experience in the never-ending “native campaigns.” So did the British, incidentally. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell played a significant role in the Second Matabele War in Rhodesia and the Ashanti War in the Gold Coast.

The Commandant-General of the Transvaal Boers was Piet Joubert, hero of the First Boer War. He built his reputation as a cautious but clever man and earned the nickname of “Slim Piet” (Clever Piet). Unfortunately for the Boers, by the time of the Second Boer War, caution dominated and cleverness had disappeared.

Commander General Piet Joubert.

Commandant-General Piet Joubert.

A certain young Boer fighter, Deneys Reitz, knew Joubert. “He was a kindly, well-meaning old man who had done useful service in the smaller campaigns of the past, but he gave me the impression of being bewildered at the heavy responsibility now resting upon him… One afternoon [just before the start of the war] he showed me a cable which he had received from a Russian society offering to equip an ambulance in case of war, and… I was astonished to hear him say that he had refused the gift. He said, ‘You see, my boy, we Boers don’t hold with these new-fangled ideas; our herbal remedies are good enough’.”*

Joubert had no strategic vision for the Boers. He was injured early in the war and died in March 1900. He was replaced by Louis Botha, who had become de facto leader of the Boers in any case.

The man chosen to lead Boer forces at Mafeking was Piet Cronje, another veteran of the First Boer War. Cronje had more on the ball than Joubert, but he never caught on to the concept of mobility that proved to be the Boers’ greatest strength. After leaving Mafeking, he achieved successes in the Kimberley campaign, but that was due largely to relying on strategy devised by Koos De la Rey. He was defeated February 1900 at Paardeberg in a hugely significant victory for the British, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

General Piet Cronje.

General Piet Cronje.

When Cronje departed Mafeking, he was replaced by J.P. Snyman, whom we saw pictured in the introductory post. Very little is known about him—apart from a few anecdotes from Mafeking— except that he was demoted by Botha early in 1900. To his credit, he continued fighting anyway.

On the British side, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s initial instructions were to raise two regiments and prepare to raid into the western Transvaal when war broke out. But the orders from London changed: he was to build up a garrison at Mafeking, stay put, and let the Boers attack. Mafeking was to serve as bait to draw Boer forces off to outskirts. Baden-Powell had around 350 men in the Protectorate Regiment, 200 in the Bechuanaland Rifles and Cape Police, and 300 volunteers from residents in the town (numbers vary from one account to another).

As it turned out, these numbers would be considerably amplified by men from the “Stadt”—the “native” side of town. The Africans made a crucial contribution to the British defense.

Under Baden-Powell’s orders, entrenchments were dug around the town’s 6-mile perimeter and gun emplacements were created. His artillery looked feeble: he had four 7-lb. guns, six Maxim machine guns, and a variety of other lightweight pieces. The Boers would soon bring in an array of guns, including one of their 94-pounder “Long Toms.”

It’s not clear what instructions Cronje had from Joubert or from anyone else. It looks very much as though the men from Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg were gathered at Mafeking simply because it was an obvious target in their neighborhood. These were not professional soldiers, just citizens with bandoliers criss-crossed over their ordinary suits, carrying Mauser rifles—as were all of the Boer fighters.

October 13, two days after war was declared, the Boers arrived before Mafeking. Telegraph and rail lines were cut. The next day, they started driving in the pickets around town. Baden-Powell sent out his armored train and a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment to support the pickets. In the ensuing action, two were killed and 14 wounded on the British side; we don’t know the Boer casualties at this point or any other during the siege. The defenders prevented the Boers from entering the town. It seems incredible they were able to do this, but Cronje had sent only 800 of his total force.

On the 16th, Cronje sent in a message saying the British must surrender; Baden-Powell thumbed his nose. The Boers began shelling the town, and the siege began in earnest. For the next 217 days, the Mafeking residents were to live under a barrage of whirring, screaming missiles exploding in the streets, the stores, and even the hospital.

(To be continued)

*Deneys Reitz, Commando. Prescott, AZ: Wolfe Publishing, 1994.

Boer fighters.

Boer fighters.

Siege of Mafeking: Introduction November 4, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: , , , ,
The least competent of Boer generals

The least competent of Boer generals, J.P. Snyman.

To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

It was a contest between the Boer old guard and a British colonel who was both arrogant and resourceful. The Boers laid siege to the isolated town of Mafeking at the very start of the three-year war, in October 1899, and with their superior numbers, they should have been able to force a quick surrender. Instead, the siege dragged on for 217 days, and the “Relief of Mafeking” in May 1900 caused the British public to swoon with delight.  The celebrations were so extravagant that the word “maffick” was coined to mean “to celebrate exuberantly.”

Postcard showing Colonel Baden Powell, circulated after the siege ended.

Postcard showing Colonel Baden-Powell, circulated after the siege ended.

I’ve written many posts about the Boer War on this blog, but I’ve never treated the subject of Mafeking even though it has been described as the most important British victory of the conflict. It was probably the event cheered most loudly in the Empire, but I can’t see the relief of a small isolated town on the border of the Cape Colony as having much strategic importance. It didn’t free up very much British manpower—only about 800 men from the Bechuanaland Rifles and the Protectorate Regiment had been involved.

The truth was, South Africa was something of a nightmare for the British. There were not many glorious victories, and it took a long grueling series of small advances in Buller and Roberts’ campaigns, followed by Kitchener’s “scorched earth” tactics that involved civilians as well as combatants, before the war was won. The Empire had expected the conflict to be over in something like three months rather than the three years that it actually took.

The siege gripped the imagination of the British public, much more than the other two sieges that started at the same time—Ladysmith and Kimberley—because Baden-Powell made such an appealing hero, and the fumbling Boers made him look so good.

Readers of this blog know that my bias is generally on the side of the Boers. In the first months of the war, before so many Tommies were shipped into Cape Town and Durban that the British had overwhelmingly superior numbers, the Boers subjected them to one embarrassment after another. Even after that,  the talents of Boer leaders such as De Wet, De la Rey, Botha, Smuts, and Viljoen kept their citizen fighters battling successfully, switching over to guerilla tactics for the second and third years of the war, until exhaustion and starvation forced them to surrender.

Another thing about Mafeking is that there are no good Boer accounts about the siege. There were always many more people writing about the war among the British than among the Boers, not surprising considering that most of the Boers were poor, uneducated farmers. Despite this, some highly memorable books were written from the Boer perspective, all after the war: accounts by Deneys Reitz, Roland Schikkerling, Christiaan de Wet, and Ben Viljoen.

But if any of the Boers at Mafeking were inspired or insightful, they made no record of their observations.

It was not a British account of Mafeking that inspired me to tackle the subject, it was the very unusual and interesting diary of an unlikely man, Sol Plaatje—an African. His is the only written account concerning the war by an African that I know of, although several good books have been written by scholars about the experience of blacks during the war.

I also finally got around to reading the amusing diary of the siege by Lady Sarah Wilson, sister of Lord Randolph Churchill and aunt of Winston Churchill (who was in  South Africa during the first part of the war). She was sometimes snobbish and irritating, but she was also an intelligent observer who described many lively details.

(To be continued)

Lady Sarah Wilson.

Lady Sarah Wilson.